Turnover in Football

A Brief Guide to Types of Turnovers

Tennessee Titans v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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A turnover occurs when the team with possession of the ball loses possession of the ball, and possession is then gained by the opposing team. The common types of turnovers in NFL football are fumbles and interceptions. There is also a turnover on downs, which occurs when a team is unsuccessful on fourth down and in turn loses possession of the ball. However, NFL game statistics only include lost fumbles and intercepted passes; turnovers on downs are not officially included.

Types of Turnovers

Fumble: A fumble occurs when the player who has possession and control of the football loses it before either being tackled, scoring, or running out of bounds. By official NFL Rule, a fumble is any act other than passing, kicking, punting, or successful handing that results in the loss of player possession.

A fumble can happen naturally, with the player simply just losing his grip and control of the ball, or a fumble could be forced by a defensive player who hits or knocks the ball lose. A live fumble can be picked up and advanced by either team.

There is a rarely-used truck play known as the ‘fake fumble’, where the quarterback purposefully loses the ball onto the field after he receives the snap, so that an offensive guard or running back can grab the ball and run with it.

Interception: An interception, also known as a pick, is when a quarterback’s pass is caught by a member of the defense, rather than the offense. This leads to an immediate change of possession during the play, with the defender who intercepted the ball having the opportunity to run it in for a touchdown.

Interceptions are commonly made by secondary players, who defend the receivers. As soon as a pass is intercepted, everyone on the defense immediately acts as blockers, helping the person with the interception get as much yardage as possible and perhaps a touchdown. This is referred to as a “pick-six.” Only the interception of a forward pass is recorded statistically as an interception. The interception of a lateral pass is recorded as a fumble.

Turnover on Downs: A turnover on downs occurs when a team on offense uses all of its allotted downs, but does not progress far enough down the field to earn a first down. Usually a team will utilize one less than the allotted amount of downs in any given set. If the team has failed to gain a first down by the last down then they use the final down to either punt the ball, giving possession of the ball to the other team, or attempt a field goal if within range. In certain situations however, the team may opt to use the final down to gain additional yardage and earn a new set of downs. This is referred to as “going for it.” Some situations in which teams may opt to go for it are:

  • When less than a yard is needed for a first down
  • When a team is on the opponent’s side of the field, but not yet in field goal range
  • When the game's end is near, and the team may not get another opportunity to get the ball back
  • When the game's end is near and the team needs a score
  • As a strategy to prevent the opposing team’s offense from taking over possession of the ball